Thursday, December 29, 2011
W2W4 with ESPN LA: Knicks vs. Lakers
By Jared Zwerling
You don't need to do much analysis to break down the Warriors' drubbing of the Knicks, 92-78. As Mike D'Antoni put it, "Our offense was awful."
But expect the Knicks to put in the effort Thursday night against the Lakers -- the biggest thing, beyond points, rebounds and assists, that was missing Wednesday night. Last season, the Knicks won 13 of 14 after Amare Stoudemire, fed up with a six-game skid in November, called them out. Perhaps STAT will be that vocal leader going into tonight's game.
It's obvious the Knicks are still out of in sync -- in any other season, tonight would still be a preseason game -- but hustle always has to be there, especially from a team that's talking championship in 2012. Tonight, the Knicks will especially have to fight for rebounds, loose balls and second-chance opportunities. Not only are the Lakers still one of the top three teams in the West -- even without Lamar Odom -- they're aching for a winning record after starting the season 1-2.
Fortunately for the Knicks, the Lakers will be at a disadvantage without Andrew Bynum, who's suspended one more game after a flagrant foul on J.J. Barea in the playoffs.
To learn more about the Lakers' state of mind and to preview Thursday's matchup, I spoke with one half of the Kamenetzky brothers, Andy, who along with his brother, Brian, manages the popular "Land O' Lakers" blog for ESPN Los Angeles. Here are Andy's responses to six burning questions I had, including one about a possible Phil Jackson future sighting in New York. (Also, here are my responses to Andy regarding the Knicks.)
Zwerling: After a third knee surgery in the offseason, and now a torn ligament in his right wrist, how does Kobe Bryant look to you so far, especially in the fourth quarter? Will he have the strength to be that closer he's always been? Also, do you think he can withstand the shortened season?
Kamenetzky: Well, the right knee and left ankle receiving futuristic PRP treatments in Germany have thus far looked terrific. There's more bounce in Kobe's step than last year around this time, and he's been regularly attacking, even if his elevation isn't the threat of old. Granted, I'm also taking this with a grain of salt, because I assumed Kobe would look fresh after an extended offseason. What matters is how he looks in April and beyond after the rigors and grind of a 66-game campaign, in which he's vowed to practice more than last season. But so far, so good.
The wrist, however, has been more problematic. Kobe's jumper has been solid enough, but creating for himself has been a struggle. His handle doesn't always cooperate, and he's getting stripped pretty easily. According to ESPN Stats and Info, last season he averaged 7.8 points per game, one point per possession and a 44.3 percent clip on isolation plays. Over the first two regular-season games, he's averaged three points per game, 0.3 points per possession and a 17.6 percent clip on isolation plays. The culprit could be everything from age to a new system to Kobe's teammates struggling, which limits his own effectiveness. But it's hard to believe the wrist --not to mention his mangled fingers -- isn't a factor.
Remember, Kobe experienced issues last season taking over games in crunch time, since you mentioned the fourth quarter. This isn't to say "The Mamba" is incapable of icing a game in the fourth quarter. A late-game turnover, plus a Derrick Rose floater, prevented Kobe from doing so in the season opener. He's still pretty flippin' dangerous, but game-to-game and fourth quarter-to-fourth quarter, not so much as before. That's not an insult, just reality.
Zwerling: How much is the team missing Lamar Odom? You obviously can't replace a guy like him, but who has to step up in his absence?
Kamenetzky: I imagine everyone misses Lamar. He was the most popular guy in the locker room and, along with Kobe, the unquestioned emotional leader. Lamar's personality is unique, and not easily replicated. But nearly three weeks have passed since his exit, along with whatever outwardly anger from LO's ex-teammates. Plus, they have enough on their plates without pining for Lamar. In that sense, it's a non-issue.
On the court, however, there's a big ol' void. Save Kobe, Lamar was the only wing player capable of creating his own shot, and his absence along those lines is quite problematic. The team will also miss his versatility of services performed. The reserves can hopefully forge a sum greater than their individual parts to fill those gaps.
Metta World Peace won't likely become the sixth man LO was, but his last two games hopefully showcased what he's capable of as a scorer and distributor. Along with Steve Blake, he's also been appointed the bench's leader by Mike Brown. (Hey, people once laughed at Odom in a key leadership role, too.) Blake will become the primary ball-handler and initiator, plus serve as an outside threat. Troy Murphy stretches a floor more reliably than Lamar, and has rebounded like a maniac since arriving in L.A. If Murphy stay healthy, at a veteran's minimum, he could be the season's best dollar-for-dollar signing. Josh McRoberts has also helped on the glass, has been disruptive on D and, while hardly in Odom's class, he moves the ball pretty well for somebody 6-10.
It's obviously most ideal to have every base covered by one guy. But, in theory, they're at least covered by somebody.
Zwerling: Which Laker not named Kobe or Pau is most capable of swinging a game for the team in either direction, and why?
Kamenetzky: I'll say Metta World Peace. As mentioned earlier, he's now Kahuna among reserves, and the unit's primary scoring option. The technique ain't pretty -- an occasional jumper aside, he mostly just bulldozes the lane -- but it's been effective over the last two games: either a layup, a trip to the line, or drawing two defenders and kicking the ball out to the open shooter. Focus assumed, MWP is actually an underrated passer, and has yet to turn the ball over in three games. Ironically, his defense, which I'd generously deem a step slow, has been more problematic.
The jury's still out as to Metta's effectiveness over a season playing point forward/battering ram, but one thing's for certain: He's being asked to do much more than his previous two seasons in the Triangle offense. He's also easily the most talented member of a bench that's arguably deeper and better-rounded than last year's inconsistent crew, even without Lamar or Shannon Brown. If MWP can guide the reserves to a better showing, plus step up when inevitably asked to close out games, the difference will be tangible.
Zwerling: Looking back on last season's Western Conference semifinals, what did you take away from Tyson Chandler's play and how can he cause havoc on the Lakers, especially now playing alongside Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudemire?
Kamenetzky: Very little, to be honest. I'm not dismissing how well Chandler played or his impact in Dallas. Everybody I've talked to, whether Mavericks players or those who cover the team, speaks emphatically of how he changed their culture. However, the Lakers were so spectacularly bad during that series -- throughout the entire playoffs, really -- and the Mavericks were so absurdly hot, it's hard to even remember Chandler's effect. I think his presence meant more in other rounds. If the Mavericks started Brendan Haywood, I'm pretty confident they'd have bounced the Lakers, too. I am, however, quite curious to see what he can do for a Knicks team that isn't exactly swimming in "plus" defenders.
Zwerling: In previous years, Phil Jackson had the clear edge over Mike D'Antoni. Now that the Lakers have Mike Brown, do you think he or D'Antoni has the advantage in calling more effective plays down the stretch to get the win?
Kamenetzky: To be honest, that's hard to answer because I've seen Brown coach five games with the Lakers (only one came down to the wire), plus a bunch of games in Cleveland where he had one player capable of running an offense through, LeBron James. I have no idea if L.A. crunch-time offense will be brilliant or awful. But on this particular Thursday, I'll give the edge to D'Antoni, because his two best players know his system better than the Lakers' two best players.
Zwerling: Speaking of Jackson, could you see him returning to the sideline with the Knicks if D'Antoni is fired or the team doesn't renew his contract at the end of the season?
Kamenetzky: Could I see it? Sure. I have an active imagination -- prove to me unicorns don't exist! -- and nobody in a million years would have predicted a second dance with Kobe. But do I actually think he will? No.
Beyond whatever nostalgia as a former Knick, what's the appeal? The Knicks are solid, but Melo-Amare is a lesser duo than Kobe-Shaq or Kobe-Pau, and it would take a few years to transform them into Triangle-running, defense-playing contenders. Phil is 66. Does he really want to grind until he's almost 70 to break his own record for titles?